The trouble with Mama and Jack Carew is that there's so very much of it. Hal Corley's full-length play, at least as presented by Theatre Artists Studio, is too long by a good 90 minutes. Its sluggish 2½ hours unfold as slowly as a dental exam; its underwhelming lead male performance is presented with the bravura of a first-semester acting student. Were this a workshop of a brand-new piece, one might forgive its tedium and half-baked dramatics. But this black comedy that wants to be a spicy theatrical gumbo offers too few wild colors and tempting flavors, and the result is a story that plays like a student production.
It's too bad, because Corley's play — performing in repertory with another of his two-acts — has its merits. Set in 1969, it tells the story of uptight, overweight Beau Stanley's final summer with his mother, Lillian, before he heads off to college. Mama, a faded belle who hates her drunk of a husband, showers her teenage son with far too much attention, some of it unseemly. She feeds him diet pills to help him trim down for college, badgers him about eating anything at all, touches him often (and often inappropriately). He's her confidant, and so she tells him all about her new boyfriend, Jack Carew, who swears he'll leave his wife for her. The boy, forced to cover for his mother and witness her hollow attempts at happiness, allows himself to be folded into a messy triangle that costs him his independence.
As Mama, Debra Rich struggles to rise above listless direction and a co-star who can't keep up. A lesser actress would have played Lillian as madcap, a sad clown with a heart of gold. Rich resists the whole Auntie Mame routine in favor of a subtler insight into a woman whose life is less than she thinks it is. But most of her scenes are played opposite young Gabe Rodio, the play's weakest acting link. His lead performance as the lonesome, peculiar boy who's his own mother's best friend is sallow and monotonous. Beau starts out withdrawn and goofy and, by the time we finally escape his company, he's become a confident, forgiving young man. In between, we witness his anger over his mother's affair, his fear for his father's well-being, his determination to escape Mom. There's little nuance in Beau's transformation; he simply arrives in Act Two in a terrible mood, which he displays by staring at the ground and occasionally frowning. There isn't much for Rich to play off of.
Tom Noga gets it right as the oily charmer Jack Carew. Noga brings a short-tempered Southern charisma to a carefree cad who's little more than a sleazy archetype on Corley's page. Rich comes alive in scenes with Noga, who brings a quiet villainy to his part without stooping to scenery-chewing, even in a violent scene where he lays flat the kid who's standing between him and his girlfriend.
To be fair, there's far too much of everything in this play, which might have made a better one-act. We don't need to see Jack leave Lillian more than once; it's not necessary to show us, again and again, the touchy-feely bond between mother and son. And the interminable set changes only slow Kim Porter's already languid direction. Ultimately, it's a trial to watch these naughty, unnerving people face their personal demons with little humor or hope for happiness.